Hugo Chavez’s Upcoming Test: A Preview of Venezuela’s September 26 Elections

Venezuelan politics have become increasingly polarized during President Hugo Chávez’s twelve years in office. The upcoming National Assembly elections are no exception, especially as the results are expected to be an important measure of the nation’s political pulse. On September 26, Venezuelans will go to the polls in a legislative election that many view as a national referendum on President Chávez and his controversial Bolivarian Revolution. This referendum is made even more significant by the fact that in just two years, Chávez himself will be up for reelection. According to a statement released by the Venezuelan Embassy, 6,428 candidates from 186 political parties are slated to participate. Having boycotted the 2005 National Assembly elections, the opposition coalition, known as the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD), now seeks to wrest a majority of seats from Chávez’s United Venezuela Socialist Party (PSUV), which currently controls 82 percent of the legislature.

While the extreme polarization of Venezuelan media and society undoubtedly affects the reliability of polling data, both pro-government and opposition sources indicate that the election will be close. According to the latest reports from Venezuelan polling companies Datanálisis and GIS XXI, the PSUV is slightly ahead, projected to receive 52 percent of the votes over the opposition’s 48 percent.

As established by the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution created under Chávez, the unicameral Venezuelan Congress is made up of a total of 165 seats. Voters directly elect 110 representatives to the National Assembly, while 52 of the remaining 55 representatives are to be chosen via a proportional party list system (the final 3 seats are reserved for indigenous representation). The majority of Venezuelan laws currently require two-thirds majority approval from the National Assembly. Accordingly, for Chávez to continue down his current path without significant obstruction from the opposition, the PSUV must hold on to a total of 110 seats. Given the number of seats that Chávez’s PSUV is proportionally guaranteed by the list system, the opposition will need to win a minimum of 57 out of the 110 directly determined seats in order to amount to more than just a token thorn in the president’s side.

Despite its marginal projected advantage, the PSUV will be heading into the elections with a number of strikes against it, including a recent economic recession, frequent power outages, spiraling rates of violent crime, and Chávez’s lowest approval ratings since at least 2003. During the 2005 legislative elections, Chávez enjoyed a reported approval rating of 70 percent. In contrast, according to an August 2010 survey by the same source, polling agency Consultores 21, Chávez must contend with a record-low 36 percent approval going into the election on Sunday. Though polling agencies traditionally tied to the government, such as GIS XXI, reported much higher approval ratings, both in 2005 and today, their numbers nonetheless reflect the same downward trend in Chávez’s overall popularity.

Chávez supporters both within and outside Venezuela have long accused the United States of interfering in Venezuelan elections and funding the opposition through grants from organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID. NED-issued guidelines state that their grantees are not allowed to use funding to support any particular political candidate over another. Historically, however, NED funds marked for Venezuela have tended to end up in the hands of organizations widely recognized as part of the anti-Chávez opposition. One of the most controversial of these was a 2003 grant of $53,400 to Súmate, an anti-Chávez organization dedicated to the coordination of an unsuccessful recall referendum on Chávez’s presidency in 2004. Given the United States’ troubled history with Venezuela’s incumbent president, a substantial victory for the opposition in the upcoming elections is likely to raise even more questions regarding the magnitude of U.S. involvement in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

The increasing tension and uncertainty leading up to the elections is compounded by the absence of a diverse body of international election observers. In contrast to 2005, the Organization of American States (OAS), the UN, and the Carter Center were not invited to observe the upcoming elections. According to the Wall Street Journal, Venezuelans on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed concern that the results of Sunday’s election may spark a violent reaction in the nation’s capital. Cardinal Jorge Urosa, the Archbishop of Caracas and a frequent critic of Chávez, has called for both parties to accept the results of the legislative elections peacefully, whatever they may be.